The smell of burning sage and the sound of ceremonial drum beats filled the air around the roughly 500 supporters that gathered in front of the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing Saturday at a protest against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The protest was a display of solidarity for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who are protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,200-mile-long shale oil pipeline project slated to run underneath the Missouri river. Members of the tribe have argued that the pipeline threatens to contaminate the river, the tribe’s primary source of drinking water.
Last Monday, many University of Michigan students “checked in” to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation Facebook page to show their support for those protesting the development. On Saturday, some students, such as, like LSA senior Noor Ahmad, also attended the rally.
Ahmad said she joined the rally because supporting the rights of indigenous people is an important issue for her, and she chose to show solidarity.
“I came here to support indigenous resistance and indigenous autonomy, and to support the fact that people travelled here from all over Michigan to show their support for Standing Rock,” she said. “We are here to learn, we are here to listen and we are here to support in any way that we can.”
Ahmad said she travelled out to Standing Rock over Fall Break with other students who felt there was a limited quantity of mainstream media coverage on the issue, which has become heated in recent months.
According to a recent article by The New York Times, violence reported from both sides reached a high point last week, with at least 142 protesters being arrested on Oct. 28 for allegedly engaging in a riot and conspiracy to endanger by fire and explosion.
Several speakers at the Lansing rally Saturday encouraged peace, and at one point called for police standing by on the Capitol grounds to join a ceremonial circle dance that included everyone in attendance of the event.
Kerry Herron, a mother from Mount Pleasant and member of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, said escalating tensions at the protest site have made it too dangerous for families to take their young children.
“I know when it first started, people were taking their kids out there and showing them what is going on, but with the police showing the force that they are, and attacking peaceful protesters, it’s not safe to take your kids out there anymore,” she said.
To draw attention to the protests in Standing Rock, Ahmad and a group of other students said they were there to conduct interviews and gather information to produce a zine, a short magazine-style work containing information about the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the DAPL issue. The group plans to use the zine to collect donations to support the protest effort.
Saturday’s rally was organized through a collaborative effort of grassroots activists statewide, according to lead organizer Regis Ferland, a Mount Pleasant resident and member of the Canadian Mohawk nation. Several tents and tables were set up on the Capitol building grounds to provide more information to those interested in donating or committing to traveling out to the protest site.
“Our two main goals are to get bodies out there to North Dakota from Michigan and to gather supply donations, and then I guess there’s a third aspect too and that’s to get the word out there” he said. “There are still people who don’t know what’s going on out there.”
Ferland said they didn’t have an exact number of committed names of those interested in joining the efforts in North Dakota, but said he has personally spoken with about 100 people who expressed interest.
“We have had probably 30 people who were like, ‘I’m not even waiting for the rally. I’m heading out so get ready for us at the host tent,’ ” he said.
He added that he returned to Michigan to galvanize support for the protests because he has seen a decrease from the 8,000 protesters who were at the site this summer.
Several people in the crowd expressed their commitment to travelling out to North Dakota, including Zahra Ahmad, a senior at Central Michigan University who said she and five other students who are planning on raising money to take supplies with them to the Standing Rock site.
“A big part of it is that we just want to deliver that money to them, we want to show them that we are standing with them, that CMU is supporting them,” Ahmad said.
Madison Clayford, a CMU junior who is a member of that group, said they are raising money for heating equipment rather than a more traditional clothing drive because they were told by organizers that was lacking among the protesters.
“One of the challenges that people face is probably the cold, and that’s where the generators come in to keep people warm,” she said. “We were initially thinking about doing a coat drive but they said ‘Do not send clothes,’ they have more than enough. ”